The Bible's Origins

The Bible has been in the possession of St. John’s Lodge No. 1 A.Y.M. in New York, NY since 1770.  Lower Manhattan burned down in March 8, 1770, including the Lodge, and was rebuilt in November 1770. Jonathan Hampton was then the Master and he provided a new Bible for the Lodge since it had lost all its furniture, regalia and equipment in the fire. The front and back covers of the Bible bear the following inscription: “God shall establish; St. John's Lodge constituted 5757; Burnt down 8th March, 5770; Rebuilt and opened November 28th, 5770. Officers then presiding: Jonathan Hampton, Master: William Butler, Senior Warden: Isaac Heron, Junior Warden.”

Although the Bible had been translated at least twice into English prior to the King James version, notably the Great Bible commissioned in the reign of King Henry VIII and the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, the famous one was commissioned by King James I and undertaken by some 47 scholars, primarily based in London, Oxford and Cambridge, from 1604 to 1611. The most used edition today is that edited by Benjamin Blayney and Francis Sawyer at Oxford in 1769, which means the Inaugural Bible was not in fact the ‘final‘ version.

The King granted the rights to print the Bible, for which he and his successors owned the copyright, to an individual family, who then had the right to print the Bible for the British Empire, spread across the word. Indeed, it was illegal to print the Bible, and anyone wanting a copy, be it a church or a family, had to order it from the family commissioned by the king to print it. For this privilege the family would, once a year, pay a sum of money to the king. This is one of the origins of the term ‘royalties.'

The first edition of 1611 was printed by the King’s Printer Robert Barker. The edition on display here is a Baskett Bible, so called because the father of the family who printed the King James version under King George II was Henry Baskett, who had offices in London and Oxford.

Printing such a huge book using manual typesetting proved a daunting task. Indeed, earlier versions of the King James Bible had been given such names as “Wicked Bible” and “Unrighteous Bible” and “Judas Bible” due to unfortunate typo logical errors. The so-called “Wicked” or “Adulterer’s Bible’, for example, published by Robert Barker in 1631 had the unfortunate error in the Ten Commandments of omitting an important “not”, so one read: “Thou shalt commit adultery!" The publishers were summoned to the King, and at the direction of an outraged King Charles I were fined a lot of money for the time and stripped of their publishing rights.

John Baskett was the King’s Printer, and according to Dr. John Lee, “one of the greatest monopolists of bibles who ever lived," when John Baskett won a case against him to print Bibles in Scotland, thereby consolidating his position as printer of Bibles for the Empire. His sons Mark and Thomas succeeded him, and Mark’s name alone appears on our Bible, dated 1767.

John Baskett’s early two volume edition in 1716 – 1717 was known as the Vinegar Bible due to its typographical error which has a header in St. Luke’s gospel saying ‘The Parable of the Vinegar’ instead of ‘The Parable of the Vineyard’. Indeed, it was so full of mistakes it was referred to as “A Baskett-full of printers’ errors."

It appears that in those days, one needed to place an order for a Bible with the Baskett printers, and from what we can tell, this was not unlike the modern practice of placing a mail order. Bible came in all sizes and qualities. Fortunately for us, Jonathan Hampton, the Master who ordered the replacement Bible for St. Johns’ Lodge, was not a poor man. Indeed, records from when he attempted to establish Temple Lodge No. 1 in Elizabeth (then Elizabethtown, the place from which George Washington took the barge to arrive in New York City for his Inauguration in 1789) show he was a very well-known ad highly respected Magistrate, as well as being a member of the Colonial Assembly of New Jersey.

The Bible ordered was definitely the deluxe version, handsomely illustrated with 103 steel engravings maps and biblical scenes by the artist John Stuart. The Bible weighs over 9 pounds, and is over 10 inches tall, 9 inches across and 3 inches deep, bound with rich calfskin dyed bright turkey red, and bearing a dedication inscription on the front and back, which was probably also completed in England prior to shipping.

The reason we believe the Bible was completed in England and not bound or decorated in the United States, is the purchase of a sister volume which is identical in every manner, save that the engravings are by a different artist, while the many are the same. In addition, the sister volume contains the Book of Common Prayer and a Liturgical Calendar as well, while the covers are of the same rich turkey red, and decorated with the same gold leaf embellishments. This strongly suggests the Bibles were assembled from parts in the printer’s office, then bound locally, prior to shipping.

The high quality of the Bible has no doubt contributed to its survival with so little wear and tear, despite the regular handling over the years. However, the fact that the inks used were vegetable dyes in those days (for example, black ink was derived from oak apples), bright lights and the chemicals innate in human fingers require that gloves be worn when handling the pages, and that no flash photographs can be permitted within six feet of the artifact. 

Use in the First President's Inauguration

The first Presidential Inauguration took place at Federal Hall (renamed from City Hall to match its new function) on Wall Street in New York City, on April 30, 1789.  New York was for that period of just over a year the Capital of the United States, and the seat of Government, with both Houses meeting in Federal Hall.

The story traditionally told is that, as Chancellor Livingston was about to administer the Oath of Office, they realized that there was no Bible, and that Jacob Morton, who was one of Washington’s Generals, a personal friend, and also one of the Aides de Camp for the Inauguration, happened to be Master of St. John’s Lodge that year. He either ran to the nearby Lodge be either ran to the nearby Lodge building or sent someone to retrieve the Lodge Bible form the Lodge. Upon it arriving one the balcony of Federal Hall, it was opened at random, Chancellor Livingston administered the Oath of Office, and after Washington had taken the Oath he added the words which have ever since been used, and never written down: “So help me God”, bent down and kissed the Bible. Livingston, Otis or Morton then turned down a corner of the page so it would not be forgotten, and the ceremony proceeded.

Washington arrived in New York a full week prior to the Inauguration, and spent much time with those appointed to organize it, a prominent member of which was Morton, who was charged with organizing the procession and ceremony. Livingston was Grand Master of New York at the time as well as being the proto-Governor of the State. Morton was Master of St. John’s Lodge. Washington was, of course, a Mason. Even Samuel Fraunces, owner of the famous tavern where Washington took his emotional leave of his Officers, and who was later appointed to the Steward of the Presidential House in Cherry Street, was made a Mason in Holland Lodge No. 8 only weeks prior to the Inauguration, shortly after Washington had been made an honorary member of that Lodge, would also have been involved.

We know from contemporary preserved records that every minute detail of the Inauguration – even down to the number of bales of hay required for the horses – was planned for.

Given the preponderance of Masons among the organizers of the first Inauguration, it is hardly surprising that, first, the wording of the Presidential Oath is lifted directly from Masonic Obligations! Secondly, knowing how Masons begin and end every important undertaking with prayer, it would seem to be inconceivable that everyone – all these Masons – forgot to include a Bible in the preparatory planning! It is suggested that, perhaps the more important point was not that a Bible be used, but rather which one. Many colonies had been formed by those fleeing religious persecution, and an early decision was that the people of this new nation should be allowed freedom in their religious practice. But remember at this time the choices were almost exclusively between different Christian sects. To use a Bible belonging to a particular denomination would have been seen as tantamount to declaring it the ‘official’ religion of the States. By using a Masonic Bible, which had not seen service in a church, they avoided a potential issue. As for selecting a page ‘at random’, this makes no sense either. The passage used seems particularly pertinent from both secular and Masonic standpoints. Genesis Chapter 49 deals with Jacob blessing his twelve sons. There were 13 colonies, and New York was the Empire State. Indeed, Genesis is sometimes described as the ‘Book of New Beginnings’, and God gave Jacob a new name, Israel, the Promised Land; so all this would pint to the probability that the passage was most carefully chosen. Now, if all this had been determined during the meetings leading up to the Inauguration, it would also make sense for one of them to have turned down the leaf of the page at that time, so they would know when to open it on the day. The reason we have to guess at this is because our forebears were not good as writing down rubrics in those days, so we only have the speeches themselves and the commentaries of contemporary reporters: not the minutes of what went on hurriedly behind closed doors in the days leading up to the Presidential Inauguration.

In any event, it was immediately realized that the Bible carried an immense importance in the founding of this country, as it was the very place where the Executive Branch of the Government had been created. Furthermore, unlike most other documents associated with the founding of the country, it remains uniquely in private hands.

A sheet was added towards the front of the Bible identifying it was the one used in the Inauguration of President Washington. At the top it bears an engraving of George Washington himself. It faces a page bearing the image of King George II, which, as the copyright owner, was contained in every King James Bible printed.

It was decided not to remove the page at the time since that would have amounted to desecration of a Bible.  Instead, the image of George Washington is placed higher than that of the King!

The inscription below the image of Washington reads: 

“On this sacred volume, on the 30th day of April, A.L. 5789, in the City of New York, was administered to George Washington, the first president of the United States of America, the oath to support the Constitution of the United States. This important ceremony was performed by the Most Worshipful Grand Master of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of New York, the Honorable Robert R. Livingston, Chancellor of the State.

Fame stretched her wings and with her trumpet blew.
Great Washington in near. What praise is due?
What title shall he have? She paused, and said:
Not one – his name alone strikes every title dead.”

Almost immediately it featured in key ceremonies, and was carefully preserved by the Lodge. At the present time only Master Masons at their Degree Ceremony, the Master of the Lodge, the Grand Master of New York, the Mayor of New York City, the Governor of the State of New York, and the President of the United States may take an Oath or Obligation upon this Bible. And only the President may do so with bare hands.

Later Use

In addition the Bible is used in, or is present at, the annual Reenactment of Washington’s Inauguration at Federal Hall. For a number of years following 9/11, when the foundations of Federal Hall required extensive repair due to its proximity to Ground Zero, the Reenactment was moved to St. Paul’s Chapel, where George and Martha Washington were accustomed to worship (since Trinity Church was being rebuilt following its destruction by the English), and also the place that Washington gave thanks on the day of his Inauguration.

Members of the George Washington Inaugural Bible Committee from St. John's Lodge No. 1 AYM shortly after the swearing in of President Warren Harding.

Members of the George Washington Inaugural Bible Committee from St. John's Lodge No. 1 AYM shortly after the swearing in of President Warren Harding.

Since the Inauguration of President Washington, the Bible has been present at many historical events Masonic and National events.

The Bible has also been used in four other Presidential Inaugurations:
o    President Harding in 1921
o    President Eisenhower in 1953
o    President Carter in 1977
o    President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1989

There is a tradition that, when a President takes his oath of office upon the Bible, be is presented with two miniatures, signed by the Master and Secretary of the Lodge, which the President also signs. One is returned to the Lodge for its archives; the other placed in the Presidential Library. Extra copies of these miniature Bibles are available for sale to Masons and to the general public from time to time.

It was present to be used in the Inauguration of President G.W. Bush in 2001, but rain prevented its use. Interestingly, the Bible was exhibited in the Capitol, and George and Laura Bush spent time with it following the outdoor ceremony. Upon his reelection he was offered the Bible again, but declined, apparently since he wished everything at the second Inauguration to be identical to the first – a tradition or superstition on unknown to Presidents. However, since the Bible had be present at the first Inauguration, this extended to the Bible being present – this time in the National Archive – for the second Inauguration, following which, the President and Laura Bush again spent time in its presence.

President George W. Bush and Laura Bush tour the National Archives in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2005 viewing the George Washington Inaugural Bible used by both Washington and his father, George H. W. Bush.

President George W. Bush and Laura Bush tour the National Archives in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2005 viewing the George Washington Inaugural Bible used by both Washington and his father, George H. W. Bush.

President Obama was offered the Bible, but decided to use the Lincoln Bible instead for its connections to Emancipation. Once again he kept the second Inauguration identical to the first, but with the addition of the Martin Luther King Bible to the Lincoln one at the latter event.

It was been used at other prominent events.
o    On December 20, 1874, His Royal Highness David Kalakaua, King of the Hawaiian Islands, kissed the Bible after his Third Degree Obligation at New York Lodge No. 330.
o    In 1919, when Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) visited New York City as a young man, and being a Mason, he visited the Grand Lodge building and was presented a miniature Bible for his collection. He signed a second copy which is in possession of the Lodge.
o    More recently, Walter Cronkite took his Obligation when he was presented with the highest honor of the Order of DeMolay, upon the Bible.

One example of how continuing research can support theories, there was a long-quoted story about President Andrew Johnson (who took over from Abraham Lincoln), staying at a hotel in Boston, where, facing impeachment and at a low point in his life, asked to see the St. John’s Lodge Bible. A group of Brothers duly transported to Bible to him (a popular debate used to center over whether the 240 mile journey was accomplished by stagecoach or by sea). They presented themselves at the hotel and in his room the President asked them to turn the pages to the one where George Washington had taken his Oath. Placing his own hand in the place where Washington had laid his Johnson promptly burst into tears, and the embarrassed Lodge members quickly excused themselves to allow the President some privacy. A few minutes later they returned and Johnson thanked them for bringing the Bible up for him to view. In 2011 a Brother located a program for the laying of the cornerstone of the first Grand Lodge of Massachusetts in Boston on Ebay, and won it. This fascinating document revealed that the Bible had in fact been in Boston on the very day in question, June 24th, 1867, carried in procession by Knights Templar of Morton Commandery (named after Jacob Morton, the Master at the time of Washington’s Inauguration), and whose membership was mainly made up of members of St. John’s Lodge. It also mentioned that the parade took place in presence of President Andrew Johnson, a Mason, who was staying in a nearby hotel at the time. 

The Bible was present at other cornerstone laying events. Other famous ones are:
o    The laying of the cornerstone of the Capitol Building by George Washington in 1793 (and its Masonic re-dedication on September 1993).
o    The laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument in 1885 (and its re-dedication in 1998)
o    The laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Arch in New York City in 1890
o    The laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Memorial Building in Alexandria, VA in 1923
o    It is believed to have been present at the laying of the cornerstone to the plinth to support the Statue of Liberty.
o    It was present in the Funeral processions of Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Zachary Taylor.
o    It was also exhibited at the 1964 World Fair in New York. 

In the past two decades it was started to travel around the States. As travel becomes easier the Lodge had attempted to accommodate requests by Masons and Civil Authorities to make it more available to the public, so that a greater awareness of this Masonic treasure is achieved.

It was been to over 21 States in the past decade, including Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington DC, Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Texas, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California.

During the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president on January 20, 2009, members of the St. John's Lodge and the Washington Bible took part in a special ceremony in front of the statue of George Washington on the steps of Federal Hall to honor the momentous occasion.